Working with the System

This is the last episode in Tim and my Publishing 101 series.  We’ve had a great response from all who’ve listened and God knows we haven’t exhausted the topic in any way.  So perhaps in the future, we’ll take this up again and answer some more questions from all of you Story Grid nerds out there.

To listen to the podcast press the play button below or read the transcript that follows.  Next week, Tim and I get back into the belly of the beast of his work in progress.



[0:00:01.2] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne who has over 25 years’ experience as an editor, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and he is helping me to figure out how to tell a story that works.


This is the third part in our three part series on Publishing 101, where Shawn and I dive deep into the publishing industry and how to navigate it. In this last episode, we’re going to talk about everything that happens after the contract is signed. Working with an editor, designing a cover, getting your book all the way to publishing, and dealing with marketing as well, we’re going to dive into that in this episode.


So hang in there for this last episode, I know you’re going to love it, we’re going to jump in and get started.




[0:00:55.2] TG: So Shawn, in the previous episodes of this series we’ve gone over your background and my background in publishing, we’ve talked about traditional publishing versus indie publishing and then we kind of talked about the pre-contract phase. Agents and selling your book and how that whole process works. And so in this final part of the Publishing 101, I want to talk a little bit about what happens after the contract is signed. So say, everything’s gone great, your agent has gotten you a book deal, everything’s been signed, now what happens?


[0:01:37.3] SC: Well, in the major publishing houses, the process is this. After the contract, actually even before the contract has been signed, because sometimes it takes a while to get the legal maneuvering. But after it’s definitely been signed, the publisher has probably already slotted the book for a specific month in a specific season depending upon the level of advance and excitement in the house for the acquisition. For example.


If the book is a big, big great thriller that would be a wonderful read for the beach, the publisher is usually going to acquire that kind of book at least nine months before that season comes to be. So if we’re talking about next summer, right now, we’re even a little bit earlier is the time that the publishers are looking for a big acquisition that they can put at the top of the list for their summer season.


So after the contract has been signed, then — and the reason why they’re going to go for a specific kind of title for the summer are usually those very exciting books that have some great hook, some great thing like the most obvious example of this is Jaws. That’s a great summer read that back in the 70’s, people read that book literally at the beach, which stopped them from even going in the water.


The publisher will plan that publication so far in advance so that they cans do whatever editing is necessary on the title and usually, a publisher is not going to throw down a half a million dollars or a million dollars for an advance unless the book is primarily working. Meaning, they can see that even if the editing doesn’t go perfectly for them, the book has enough juice already inside of it that it will sell regardless of whether or not the author takes all of the notes from the editor, et cetera.


So today is the era where publishers aren’t really in the developmental editing world anymore, they’re not signing up potential books that could be great with a lot of editing and hard work. Rather, what they’re signing up are books that already work, that with a little tweaking and editing could even be bigger and better. So it’s going to be a nine month process out, usually.


[0:04:21.1] TG: Now this is different between fiction and nonfiction, right? Fiction’s not usually sold, unless you’re an established author, fiction’s not sold unless the book is done. Where a lot of nonfiction is sold based on a proposal in just a couple of sample chapters, is that right?


[0:04:39.2] SC: That’s correct. Usually on a proposal for nonfiction, what they’ll do is they’ll give the writer or author nine to 12 months to finish the manuscript, to write the entire thing, and then they’ll schedule it for six to nine months after the book has been delivered and accepted and usually, your big nonfiction titles, unless they’re seasonally, it makes sense to publish them in a particular season. Like say if it’s a big biography of George Washington, the publisher may say, “Well this would be something we want to publish in February to tie in to Washington’s birthday, February, President’s Day, all that kind of stuff.”


So unless there’s a specific time and anniversary like a D-day book, you’re going to want to publish that around the anniversary of D-Day. But unless there is something specific, they will slot that depending upon when they can foresee having a final book in house, ready to go and then six to nine months after that, they’ll publish it so that it gives them enough time to presell it into the retail outlets, get advanced quotes from big names, get a great jacket, et cetera.


It is a substantially long process no matter fiction or nonfiction, for example, one of my writers is a terrific thriller writer named Matthew Quirk and he just delivered his fourth book and they’re planning on publishing it next March. They’re getting all, as they say, all their ducks in a row for the next nine months before they actually put the book on sale.


[0:06:21.7] TG: That’s been one of the criticisms of traditional publishing is that it takes so long. Why does it take, if I come with a manuscript that’s working, why is it nine months before my book is finally for sale?


[0:06:36.3] SC: Well, it’s an antiquated calendar and I think all of those criticisms of the major publishers are valid. The reason why it takes so long is, “Well, this is just the way we do things here. We’ve found that the longer you have and the more preparation you can get before you publish a book, the better it will perform in the market place. It gives us enough time to pitch the long lead magazines so that we could possibly get national review coverage before the book comes out, it gives us enough time to produce bound galleys so we can get reads across the retail chains so that their buys will be good when they come in for the presell,” et cetera.


I could give you 45 minutes of spill that any writer that has been published by any major publisher has heard before. The reality is, it doesn’t require the amount of time that they take, the reason why they take that much time is because they have a very large operation, they’ve got systems in place at their warehouse within the editorial department, within the publicity department.


You got to remember that they’re constantly — they’re planning 15 to 24 months in advance and they’ve got this system down and they’ve been using this system for 50, 60 years now and it’s very difficult to get anybody to change anything, it’s difficult to get me to change the brand of toothpaste that I use so it’s really difficult for a major operation to shift its systems to accommodate a book that’s delivered and published within six weeks.


Which you and I, as our own independent publishers, we can turn a book around as quickly as necessary. Back in the day, there used to be what they called instant books back in the mass market divisions of the major houses. An instant book with something that was a topical book that you could get out in two weeks and you would publish it in a mass market edition.


An example of that would be back in the day when they have the OJ trial, when I was at Saint Martin’s press, we did an instant OJ, “did he or didn’t he kill his wife” book. The true crime genre used to lend itself to that instant kind of publishing and it was a lot of fun. Because you would hire a writer who could get the goods as quickly as possible, they bang out a manuscript in two weeks.


They would get the manuscript in, you would copy edit it overnight you would design it the next day, meanwhile you’d be doing a cover and you would be calling all of the chains and saying, “Hey, we have an instant book on the OJ Simpson mess, how many copies do you want?” They would look at their computers and they would say, the JonBenét Ramsey book we did last year did great. So we’ll take 100,000 copies.” I’m talking about mass market, those little mass market paperbacks that you used to find in drug stores and at the airport.


Today, the mass market has migrated to the Internet and to self-publishers. So we were talking the last time about the great big opportunities inherent and the shift of power in book publishing and here is a perfect example: there was a massive market for the instant book, true crime book and today, all of that instant stuff, the major publishers have just seated to independence. Because they don’t’ want to spend the time, they don’t want to spend the expense.


The mass market world is not what it once was, wholesalers do not take 50,000 copies of the mass market book with a phone call anymore. Because they’ll say, “Oh anybody can get all that information on the New York post website, the true crime details come out at TMZ. So it’s a completely different instantaneous news cycle now that prevents these once kind of pulpy books from coming out instantly.


[0:10:54.6] TG: Okay. This was a question that we got from one of our listeners because it ties in but the question was basically like, “Do editors usually work as closely with writers as you’re working with me?” I’m guessing no, but the follow up question she had was basically like, “When should you get an editor involved and at what point?” I’m curious how the process works since you have to bring a finished manuscript to the editor.


What role do they play then in finishing the book and say I was an author trying to write a book that works, should I maybe hire an editor early on to help kind of coach me the way that you’ve coached me to kind of get a book to a place where I could then sell it to a big house? I’d like to hear a little bit about just the editorial process, how the writer works with the editor inside of a publisher and maybe independently?


[0:11:57.9] SC: Okay, I’m not trying to flatter myself in any way but essentially what you and I are doing Tim is something called developmental editing. What developmental editing is, is a process by which a writer and an editor work together very closely from really the conception of the idea and try and map out a course of action for the writer to create a manuscript that’s really working. That’s working from almost first draft.


That is a very rare thing today and in fact, I can’t give you a list of other editors in the business who do the kind of editing work that I do. The reason why I do the kind of editing that I do is that I’m a writer myself and I’m a frustrated storyteller. One of the great things that I love to do is to just mire myself in story structure and really get in there. I like to open up the hood of the car, I like to look at the spark plugs. You know this, I mea you’ve been so much already.


But the way it works with the major publishing houses is you’re not going to get a developmental editor. The publisher, for very good reason, doesn’t want developmental editors in their shop. The reason why they don’t want a developmental editor in their shop is they don’t want Shawn Coyne spending 15 months with a writer on a project that may or may not work.


No, what they want is Shawn Coyne to be an acquiring editor, somebody who can recognize a book that works and doesn’t work, who can recognize an opportunity in an underserved marketplace in a genre that isn’t being served very well and who can make a recommendation to the publisher, “Hey, let me bring in this book, it’s already working and I can tweak it in two weeks or three weeks and I can get it back to the writer, they can get it back to me in a month and it’s going to be good to go.


So the editors that you’re going to find at the major publishing houses and there are a lot of really talented fixers who can notice a big hole or a big problem that they can recommend a fix for pretty quickly and these are people like Jerry Howard at Doubleday. Like Regan Arthur who is the publisher of Little Brown, she’s a fantastic editor. I can go on, Bill Thomas at Doubleday.


I’m mentioning a lot of people that I know personally. Sonny Mehta at Knopf, Jordan Pavlin at Knopf. Let’s see, somebody at Simon & Schuster, John Karp who is also the publisher. Shawn Desmond at 12, I could rattle off a ton of names but the reason why I’m just throwing off of you is that these are the kind of editors, you give them a book that works, they’re going to say, this works, now, let’s take it up two notches, you’ve got a problem here and here’s a 15 page memo of all the little stupid things and mistakes that you made in the manuscript itself.


You fix this 15 page document, you address this three major problems and we’re good to go. They are very, very good at doing that kind of editing. Now, they would be the first ones to admit, “Hey, don’t come to me with your idea, don’t come to me with a third act problem because you know what? I don’t have the time nor the inclination to dive in to your problems at that level. Now, the other question that you mentioned is, what do you do if you’re a writer and you need an editor? When do you bring an editor in?


This is exactly why I wrote the Story Grid. Now you and I are working, we’re using the Story Grid to create something from whole cloth and we are using it to help you direct your story but the way I devised Story Grid is to be your own editor. So it’s a way to teach you, the writer, how to switch off your writer and turn on your editor. The internal editor, we all have one, right? We all have that one, that thing inside of us that will rip us to shreds and say, “Oh these senses are terrible, your story isn’t working, this sucks.”


Now, what I’m trying to do with the Story Grid is to train that nasty cynical person inside of each of us and give them really helpful things to tell you as opposed to just ripping you apart to get you to stop. I’m trying to convert the voice of resistance in your head into actually a helpful, directive, prescriptive voice and if you follow the principles of the Story Grid, you can over time, with very direct hard work, you can teach that person to put away all the nastiness and to actually be helpful prescribing the main problems in your story.


So I don’t think there’s a magical elf who is going to come along as an editor. I’m not a magical elf, you and I have conflicts all the time when you go through the story stuff, and it’s a very complicated process. But what I do think you are learning Tim as a writer is inadvertently, you’re also learning how to be your own editor through this Story Grid process.


Eventually, in the next year, I bet in a year, you and I will be able to have very short hand conversations, we’ll all be able to say, “Dude, the crisis in act two is really soft, you got to pump that up, you’re not intersecting your external and internal genres at the climax of the middle build, you got to do that,” and you’re going to go, “Oh right, you’re totally right, oh man, yeah, okay. Now I know what to do.” This is what the Story Grid is about.


[0:18:17.3] TG: I look forward to that day.


[0:18:19.0] SC: You’re going to get there. It’s really concerted hard work, it’s like becoming a really great brick layer, some people are born with the natural ability to do great brick laying, others have to smash up their hands for hour upon hour until they can get a hold of it. That’s the way I am and I think that’s the way you are too.


[0:18:40.1] TG: Okay, so if I’m a fiction writer, I’ve sold the book and I’ve gone back and forth with my editor with that 15 page document to get the story to the point that it’s working and then if I’m a nonfiction, I’ve written my manuscript then I’ve submitted it. What happens then in that nine months between when the manuscript is done and the book is on the shelves or published?


[0:19:05.9] SC: Well, you’ll be going through a process with the publisher of creating a jacket, a cover, they will have pitched the art department, sort of generally what your book is about and the art department will go to an internal meeting at the major publishing house and they will say, “Okay, we think we get it, here’s our concept,” and they’ll come in with sketches and the publisher and the editor will review those sketches and they’ll say, “Yeah, go in that direction, work up a comp,” meaning, just a generic example of what the jacket will look like eventually, “and I’ll show it to the author.” Now, the thing is, with covers is that the author really has no say, really. That’s good, depending up on your publisher…


[0:19:54.4] TG: You think that’s good?


[0:19:56.5] SC: I think that’s good with a major publisher because I think the major publisher, even when they make very big mistakes, they’re never going to be as big a mistakes as somebody who is an amateur trying to do a cover. I’ve been through some terrible covers with major publishers. They have been covers that I think really aren’t working so great but what they are doing is they are in genre, meaning, they are targeted appropriately to the specific genre.


Now, the execution of the final cover is really important but as long as it’s directed to the appropriate genre, for example when I say “genre”, if you’ve written a military thriller and there’s no gun or bullet on that front cover or a helmet or anything that’s connoting war or military-ness, you’re in big trouble.


A publisher isn’t going to make that mistake. If they do, it’s going to be a rare mistake. When I say a publisher, I’m talking about the big five. If you go to a Little Brown or a Doubleday or Saint Martin’s press or Simon and Schuster and you’re written a military thriller, they’re going to put some image that will tell readers immediately, “This is a military themed story.”


So anyway, what’s happening in that nine months before publication is the generation of book jacket or cover, a book jacket is for a hard cover book and a cover is for a paperback book. They’re going to be generating a cover and they’re going to show you that cover and if you absolutely hate the cover and you have issues with it, you can make your case and I’ve made cases before.


This is where a great agent comes in where they can make a case for you that is convincing enough for the publisher to rethink it. They will go back to the art department and say, “Look, they’re bringing up some really good points here.” Can you address this? Usually the art department or Ham and Ha, they’ll do it.


One of the things an agent can do is get you a cover consultation on the book cover but you’ll never get approval. Even the biggest bestselling writers, they don’t even want approval at some stage because they understand that they’ve established a brand, the publisher is packaging them in a specific way and they’re not going to throw down over a jacket that isn’t perfect but like, if you look at a John Stanford cover, it looks like very other John Stanford cover.


If you look like a John Grisham or Danielle Steele cover or James Patterson cover within his particular series, they’re all going to look really specific to that particular writer and this is what the good thing that a major publisher does is they’ll establish a cover brand for you. This is what happens in that interim between the acceptance of your manuscript and publication.


Now, the other things that are going on are copy editing and proof reading. Copy editing will take anywhere between two to three weeks, you’ll get it back, you’ll fix the coma’s, you’ll go back and forth with the copy editor, then they’ll design the book, they’ll have a designer who is freelance at the major publishers or who works in house, who will do it design that is genre specific.


[0:23:46.2] TG: Design of the inside of the book?


[0:23:47.9] SC: Exactly, exactly. So if you’ve written a novel that’s a military thriller, chances are you’re going to have dingbats, meaning little images in the chapter headings in our bullets or some military beret or something, I don’t know, and business books looks similar, if it’s a big idea, Malcolm Gladwell-esk book, it will have a specific kind of look to it, it will be a small trim size.


So they’re not going to reinvent the wheel on your interior design, they’re going to find something that’s close to what yours is, that they’ve published before and then they’re going to design it based upon that. Nobody buys a book based upon the interior design unless it’s absolutely horrible and then they won’t buy it.


The major publisher isn’t going to do a horrible interior design nor are they going to do just an atrocious cover. Buy somebody who self publishes, that’s the problem. The fall in to those traps all the time and their books don’t look real. They look like your uncle Jack was at the mimeograph machine for seven hours, cranking something out.


[0:25:03.6] TG: Yeah. I want to jump in here and give some feedback so as I mentioned, I’ve always worked on the alter side and I’ve been involved with my authors with their publisher, with some tiffs over titles and covers. I want to give a little advice here, I agree that just like with any relationship, you want to pick your battles. So if you are going to pick the battle of your title or your cover, make sure that it’s so bad you really need to pick this battle.


How we’ve done this before, I had one client in particular who, their title that their publisher kept pushing was just not a good title. What we did is we took that title, we took a couple of titles, my author liked and we got some other titles from just our network. I think we ended up with seven or eight titles. We actually ran them through this service that’s called and what it does is you can give an A and a B option and it shows it to 50 random people who vote on which one they like.


We ran the titles through and did a bunch of split tests on all this different titles saying, “Okay, which book would you buy? The one this title, or this title? This title, or this title?” I actually have a walk through that I’ll put in the show notes on how to do this. Then what you have at the end of this is you have data. You can say, “Hey, what we polled 500 different people and according to them, this is the tile that’s the best.” And now, when you have — the problem that I found arguing about this stuff is it’s all anecdotal.


It’s all based on experience and the publisher is kind of, whoever in your publisher who is making this decisions, is doing it anecdotally off of their own feel, which in most cases is more refined than yours because they’ve done so many books but you also know your book better than them. For instance, one time my author was like, “Okay, what color,” — and it was a business book. “What color should the cover be?” And the answer was, “Well I feel like there’s not that many yellow covers out there. I think we should go with yellow,” and when my client got that, he was at the airport.


So he walked in an airport bookstore and took a picture of six different business books with yellow covers. The anecdotal “I don’t feel like there’s many yellow covers” was complete BS and not true. What I found is, if you want to argue with your publisher on cover or title, if you can bring data to the table, it will really help swing them in your side. If you come and say, “Look, I understand you like that title or I understand you like that cover but I just ran a bunch of tests on five different cover mock ups and this is the one that keeps winning, could we do something like this?” You’re much more likely to get a yes.


So don’t get emotional about it, just bring data to the table and we’ve done that before and actually one time we completely confirmed the publisher too. So we stopped fighting. We just said, “Okay, never mind, we’ll let that go.” That’s what I found is like, if there’s any time that you want something, especially title and cover to change. Since you don’t have final approval, if you can bring data, a lot of times that will swing it in your favor.


[0:28:43.3] SC: I absolutely agree with that Tim and I will say this, everything that you say is absolutely true. The entire industry is built upon gut instincts and experience. It’s not built upon big data and they don’t have the time nor the inclination to do the tests that you’re suggesting. I mean, don’t throw it in their face and go, “See man, here’s my data.”


No, just be like, “Hey, for fun, me and my brother did this data test and here are the results, we thought you’d find it interesting,” and then they’ll go, “Oh wow, let’s definitely go with that.” They’re not stupid people, they’re going to listen to a well-argued argument and if you can say to them, “It’s definitively, this is the right way to go,” they’re probably going to listen to.


[0:29:38.7] TG: Yeah. So once the book — and I have some definite opinions and feedback on this, but once the book comes out or like as the book is about to come out and you’re planning for it, what is the role of the publisher and the marketing and PR?


[0:29:55.5] SC: Well, this is the thing that is very controversial. I’m trying to…


[0:30:01.5] TG: That’s why I saved it till the end.


[0:30:03.3] SC: Yeah, I think the best way to approach it is to assume the following. Assume that they aren’t going to do anything. Assume that they are going to put the book in the marketplace and that the best thing that they’re going to be able to do is to ship books on time. Even sometimes that gets a little wonky but for Marketing and publicity, you have to look at the point of view of the people in the marketing and publicity departments.


We all have the tendency to think that our project and our thing is so important that other people are putting as much energy into it as we are and that is just not the case. These people are, you know, a publisher like Doubleday is publishing 200 books a year, that’s almost a book a day. So you have to think, okay, there are five people in the marketing department and there’s 200 books. Each one of them is getting 40 books a year? And 40 books a year is a lot of work.


What they’re going to do is they’re going to find systems that they can create that are going to be the most convincing and interesting to writers. So they’re going to say, “We’re going to do the following things for your margining department. We’re doing to do a Goodreads give away.” What a Goodreads give away is, you give away 20 galleys at Goodreads, it sounds much more interesting than it really is.


“And we’re going to do a pre-sell bound galley campaign to retailers on the east coast.” What that means is that their mailing department is going to get a list of labels it’s going to ship a book, an early copy of your book to a store manager in Poughkeepsie who is going to put in a pile with the 37 other books that he got that month from the same marketing kind of program.


Now, if you’re at the top of the list, meaning, you’re getting a million dollars or more in advance, they’re really going to try new marketing ideas but if you’re in the mid list, if you’ve been getting an advance of anything, $100,000 and less, you’re probably going to get a standard marketing publicity pitch, which is minimal.


So assume the worst, I always say this to people, “Assume the worst.” And the other thing that’s a little bit frustrating, actually majorly frustrating is once you sign that contract with a major publisher, once you cash that check, they can tell you, you can’t do things. If you have a really great marketing idea and even if you say, “I’ll pay for it all myself,” they have to say, “Okay, you can do it.”


If they say, “No, we don’t want you to do that,” guess what? You can’t do it. This is one of the major things that I tell my clients in my literary agency is, “Hey, let’s go in to this relationship with the manager publisher with our eyes wide open. Once we sign that contract, once we cash that check, they kind of own us. They’re not mean, terrible people but they can no and we have to listen to them. They have now become our parents. So if you can’t handle being a child and assuming the child and the parent child relationship, then you’re going to have trouble with a major publishers.”


There are ways to have both things, and one of the reasons why Steven Pressfield and I started Black Irish Books was this reason. This was the primary reason why we started our own publishing company is because we’re stupid and we like to do stupid things, we’ll do this stupid thing like give away 20,000 books because we’re crazy and we think if 20,000 people read a book that we think is great, they might tell somebody to buy it. Even though they read it for free.


Or even better, they might buy it, two copies themselves and give them to their friends. So we believe our books market themselves but a major publisher is never going to give away a book for free, never ever, ever, ever, ever. Because they need to earn back their advance money as soon as possible. So we talked about this probably at the very beginning of this entire series but the major publishers, once you sign up, you have to assume that the marketing and publicity departments are going to not generate much, am I wrong?


[0:35:15.5] TG: No, this is the part of the publishing process I have the most experience with. So I’m going to just kind of talk for a little bit with on it. I agree with most of what you say, I’m going to come back to the point of asking your publisher for permission, but I agree. So what you’re facing is, there’s been huge layoffs and everything inside of publishing as they’ve consolidated more and more and like Shawn said, the person that’s been assigned to your book has been assigned to 50 other books. My favorite story on this, I was on a conference call with one of my authors with their publicist inside of the publisher.


Their publicist asked the author if they were going to hire a publicist. He was like, “You’re my publicist,” and she’s like, “Well, you should probably hire an outside publicist.” Yes, we talked like six or eight weeks ago about the three groups of books and you kind of eluded to that where if you’re over a million dollar advance, you’re going to be in the group A. Group A is going to get 90% of the time intention and money of the marketing department. If you’re in group B which is a six figure advance, you’re going to be splitting up that 10% and if you’re group A, which means you got less than a hundred thousand dollar advance, you’re pretty much on your own.


I have been involved with book launches in each of those segments and what I found is, even when the publisher is very engaged, they don’t know what they’re doing in general because they just don’t understand the way that marketing works outside of getting your books placed in Barnes & Noble or airport bookstores. So what I encourage my authors to do is look at their publisher as if they were an assistant.


So if you hire an assistant for you inside of your company or to help you with something, you don’t assume that they’re going to be laying at wake at night, thinking of new ideas. You don’t assume they’re going to be driving anything but they will support you in what you’re doing. That’s where I found you get the most out of your publisher is if you come up with a plan, you come up with a launch plan or marketing plan or you come up with exactly what you’re going to do and you ask your publisher for assistance. They’re much more likely to be helpful.


Because if you need them to do XY or Z or send books to this address or reach out person for you and you give them exact directives on what to do, they’ll probably do that but you have to drive it. If you’re sitting at home thinking, “Oh I’m so happy that my publisher’s taking care of my marketing for me,” they haven’t thought about your book in the last month. So that’s how I — if you kind of switch your thinking from “my publisher is going to drive my marketing for me” versus “no, no, I’m in charge but they’ll help me”, you’ll one be less frustrated and two you’ll get more out of your publisher.


So a couple of examples would be a several of my authors have wanted to do signed book plates, which are these little stickers that if you preorder their book, they’ll send you in the mail and then you can put a sticker on it and it has the author’s signature so now you have a signed copy of the book. If we had waited for the publisher to come up with that idea, it would have never happened. But we went to the publisher and said, “Look, we’re going to buy the stickers, we’re going to sign them, we’re going to do the whole promotion and we’re going to get an Excel spreadsheet of all the people that we owe this stickers to. If we give you that spreadsheet in the signed stickers, will you mail them for us?”


Across the board we’ve got the yes because they’ll get some in turn, in house to do that for you so you don’t have to take care of it and that takes a big load off of you but, you are the one driving it. So that’s the first thing I talk about with publishers is look at them that way and you’ll be much more likely to get their help because you’re the one driving what they should be doing. The second is kind of a baby step to that, which is, ask, ask, ask. Be the squeaky wheel.


Your marketing people, your PR person has 50 other books as we’ve already said, you have to stay top of mind and that is your job. You don’t have to be a jerk but you should be emailing them, you should be calling them, if they say they’re going to do something, say, “Okay, when are you going to do it?” And if they say, “Okay, by next Tuesday,” they need to hear form you next Wednesday following up to see if they did it. So make sure that you are being the squeaky wheel that you are the one that’s staying in top of mind with your book, you’re asking follow up questions. If they say they’re going to do something, do not assume they’re going to do it. Say, again, as if they were an assistant.


The other thing that I kind of want to push back on you Shawn is what I have found is, do not ask your publisher for permission to do anything. So there’s lots of reasons for this. Now, I have to put a caveat here, which is “read your contract, I’m not a lawyer”. If I tell you to do something that like gets you in legal trouble, that’s not my responsibility. That said, the problem inside of publishing right now is everybody is scared of losing their job. They don’t want to, most people inside of publishing, they’re obviously great people but they’re not interested in being the one that does something crazy like you said.


If you go to them and say, “Hey, I have this crazy idea, can I do it?” And they say “yes” and it blows up, they’re losing their job. Their bent is to default to know. If you asked them anything that is even a little bit on ordinary, they will default to the answer no and I have some just crazy stories about this. What I have found is, it’s much better to ask for forgiveness than permission because all your publisher cares about is that you sell books.


So if you go out and do something crazy and it sells a bunch of books, they don’t care, you will not even hear from them except, “Hey, great, your book’s selling.” So what I stop doing is asking their permission to do anything and so if we wanted to, and this is the part that could get hairy when it comes to like the lawyer stuff, but we’ve given away like half the book without asking just to drive sales and since it did drive sales, nobody minded. If that had blown up and I had asked somebody inside the publisher and they give me permission, I might have just cost somebody their job. They would have just said no from the beginning anyway.


So that’s kind of my advice for working with your publisher that I’ve seen worked the best is to just, if you come up with an idea, just do it and ask for forgiveness if they get mad and look for opportunities where if you come up with ideas, invite them in if it’s not a crazy idea and say, “Hey, I’m doing this, can you do this like menial task? Or can you cover the bill on this thing or can you do this?” As long as you’re driving the bus, they’re much more likely to get on and help you.


[0:42:33.1] SC: I think that’s good advice and it’s a hairy thing because if you’re not giving away the entire brook and you’re giving and excerpt away, here’s the problem that I’ve kind of found and it’s more of a marketing problem than it is a publishing problem and that is, once some marketer figures out something that works, then it becomes so ubiquitous that it loses meaning so it used to be great. Like, “We will give you a reader’s guide for free which are really wonderful, little mini books that will walk you in your reader’s group to a discussion about the book.”


Publishers started to do this about 30 years ago. Now every book has a reading guide, like the reading guides. So it lost all of its power and it’s the same thing with excerpts and, “I’ll send you the first chapter of my book for free.” So I think you’re right, the bottom line is everybody wants word of mouth. How do you generate word of mouth? That’s really what sells, just about anything, especially books.


You hear about a great book from a friend or somebody you trust, you’ll buy the book, you don’t really care if Don DeLillo gave it a quote anymore, you don’t care if the New York Times book review gave it a rave. If somebody close to you says, “This thing is incredible and you should really read it, it changed my life.” You go out and you buy it.


How do you get those conversations going is really the key to marketing, pretty much anything. So I think you’re right Tim, if you come up with something unique and fresh that’s going to get people to try your book. Try it and if it blows up, apologize. Because it’s very rare, I can’t even — maybe there are five times when a publisher has gotten so angry at a writer for doing something off the reservation that they’ve actually sued them. Usually the publisher will say, “Oh man, don’t do that. Don’t do that again please.”


[0:44:49.3] TG: Yeah, I mean I’ve never had an issue with — I’ve had a publisher asked us to stop doing something but never had it blow up into anything. Usually we don’t give away — what we have found is things like, what I’m always asking is, “Okay, a book by definition is words on a page. So what could I do around this book to add value and entertainment beyond just words on a page?” We do things like for one book it was one of this pop science books, I had my author go back and do hour long interviews with three of the researchers who’s research was covered in the book and we gave those away with the book.


We’ve done like study guides or work books, we’ve done a series of videos. Basically, just constantly looked for ways to add value and that’s the kind of stuff that you would get a “no” if you asked a publisher. If you said, “Hey, can I go and like talk deeply about the research based on the book with the researcher?” They’d say, “Well, I don’t know, you might be giving away too much that’s in the book. We’d rather you not do something like that.”


But if you don’t ask and just do it, one is probably nobody will even notice because they’re working on the other 50 books they have on their desk and then if they do notice, they’ll be like, “Oh, okay,” it won’t even be a thing. That’s what I mean is not so much giving away the book, I didn’t want to focus too much on that as much as just, this is your baby, just go crazy, pull out all the stops, do everything you possibly can to get this book out into the world.


If you get an email from your publisher asking you to stop doing something, just say, “Okay, I’m sorry,” and stop doing it. If you kind of lean that way, you’re going to get a lot more done. It’s kind of like I just hired a consultant for my own company and he kept asking me like, “Okay, should I do this?” And I was like, “Yes.” Then as you said, “Well can you approve this?” And I was like, “Yes.” Then I stopped him and I said, “Okay, here’s the thing. I’m going to say yes to everything and I’d rather just correct you one out of 20 times and than approve something 19 out of 20 times and it holds up the process.”


I kind of think that way, “I’m just going to do whatever I want to do and the one time out of 50 that the publisher tells me to stop is not worth me risking and wasting time on the 49 times that I would have gotten a yes anyway. So I’m just going to do it.”


[0:47:17.1] SC: That’s a good strategy, it really is.


[0:47:20.6] TG: Okay, so as we wrap up this Publishing 101 Series, is there anything — we’ve kind of try to hit all of the major points. Is there anything that you would want to, that we didn’t hit or didn’t talk about or something you want to reiterate to people that are looking to wade into this publishing world for the first time?


[0:47:41.8] SC: Yes, there’s just one thing that I’m going to recommend everybody do and that is to read more and when I say read more, a lot of people come up to me and they ask me my advice and they haven’t read anything. And I’ll say, “Well, did you read the following 10 titles in the genre that you want to get in to?” “No, I’ve been meaning to though man. But anyway, can you tell me how I can get a really good agent?”


The most important thing, it’s like anything, if you’re not well versed in the universe that you want to live in, if you don’t know where the 7/11 is to get a thing of milk in the middle of the night then you’re not going to be able to get any milk, right? So you’ve got to read. If you want to be a writer, you must read. You must read all the time.


If you are not compelled to read then you should really think about why you want to be a writer because it’s probably not out of a love of writing and the craft, it’s probably something psychologically suspect. You might have some deep seated need for validation that you think you’re going to get by writing a book.


Now, you’re not going to get validation in the way that you think you will. The only thing that you can do is you want to be a writer, you know it and you need to read as much and within — it’s fun, you’ve got to see it as fun. So that’s my big advice for anybody who wants to get in to publishing is read. Read the stuff that you want to be a part of and learn from it. Learn from the masters, learn from the people who have written stuff before and this isn’t business, this is nonfiction, fiction, whatever. Read the classics, read the best stuff and you will be inspired to make your work better.


[0:49:43.1] TG: All right, I’ll give my parting thoughts to you here. So my advice just from working with so many authors is to be extremely pragmatic and unemotional as you possibly can about the process. Especially if you’re in the process of trying to find an agent, trying to sell a book, trying to do these things. The last thing you can do is walk around getting your feelings hurt all the time. I find, assume the best of people if you email an agent and you never hear back from them, assume that they are too busy and have better things to do, and that’s okay and you can move on with your life.


Don’t hold grudges, assume that the advice you’re getting from experts is correct instead of assuming that everybody’s an idiot but you and be just extremely pragmatic. Understand it’s a business, understand people are trying to make money, people are in this business for business not to satisfy your goals of being an author. If you can enter in with a humble learning attitude, you will have people that will help you.


I’ve seen this with authors, I’ve worked with both sides of the table with authors and the ones that come in humble, looking to help other people for, one to learn and are willing to kind of stumble and make the mistakes and keep learning, they move so much faster and they somehow are always the ones that the doors keep opening for.


So that’s my advice is to be unemotional, be learning and look at everything as an experiment and really try to just be the type of person that people want to work with and you’ll be surprised how far you’ll go even if your writing isn’t as good as other people’s.


[0:51:30.6] SC: That’s true.


[0:51:31.4] TG: So that’s my advice.




[0:51:32.4] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. As always, you can get everything Story Grid related at If you missed any of the previous Publishing 101 episodes or the special two part series we did with Steve Pressfield or any past episodes, all of that is at


Next week, we are back to our regularly scheduled programming as Shawn and I dive back into the editing process as I’m working on the second draft of my book. You can continue to follow along as I stumble through that process. Thanks as always for continuing to listen to the show and share it with your friends, if you haven’t yet left a review or rating on iTunes, please go and do that, it helps us continue to share the show with other people.


So thanks for listening, and we will see you next week.

7 comments on “Working with the System

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    Thanks for this three-part detour into Publishing 101! I came away with an even bleaker opinion of traditional publishing than I had before, but was delighted to hear Tim touting the “better to ask for forgiveness than for permission” philosophy to which I have long subscribed. I’ll look forward to hearing how Tim’s second draft is going next week.

    P.S. Shawn…if you and Steve are indeed “stupid and crazy” — keep it up!

  2. Stupid and crazy works for me! LOVED the Publishing 101 mini-series.

  3. Stephen Smith says:

    You really scared me when you said this was the last in the series. I thought you meant it was the last of your podcast! I was ready to cry. Now my internal snoopy dog is doing the happy dance. 🙂

    I don’t think I’ve ever commented here before, so let me say something about the whole podcast at this point. This is by far my absolute FAVORITE writing podcast. And you’re going up against quite a few good ones I listen to, including:

    The Creative Penn Podcast
    The Writing Talk Podcast
    Writing Excuses
    The Worried Writer
    The Newbie Writers Podcast
    Writer 2.0
    The Journeyman Writer
    The Exploding Typewriter

    Yes, you beat out all of those. Tim, I’m exactly where you are in writing my first book. I’m finishing my first draft, wondering if it’s any good and whether it’s publishable. When you finished your first draft and Shawn said it didn’t work in it’s current form, I felt so depressed and sad for you. I’d followed your hard work from the very first episode up till then. Please, please, don’t give up. I feel like I’d somehow fail too if you gave up because I feel a big connection to you. (umm, sorry if that sounds creepy, oh well..) Just know that I’m going to buy and read your finished book no matter what it is or when that is.

    Blessings to you both.

    P.S. Hey Shawn, guess what I asked for and got for Christmas? Your Story Grid book. 🙂

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks Stephen. Really glad we’re helping out…

    2. mcginncrime says:

      Stephen, you speak so eloquently for me about these podcasts. When I heard Tim’s reaction to Shawn’s comments about his first draft, I felt such a huge surge of empathy my eyes welled! And I’m writing my 5th novel. Then subsequently, all the creative alternatives he brought to the table – wow!
      My wife saw me shaking my head listening one day and she said, concerned, “What’s wrong.”
      I just smiled and said, “This guy Shawn Coyne. He’s an effing genius.”
      She rolled her eyes.
      But honestly, I wish I knew at book 1 what I know today and I’ve probably only integrated a small proportion of the story grid!

  4. “The reason Steven and I started Black Irish Publishing is because we are stupid and we like to do stupid things.” Oh, Shawn, would we could all be as stupid as you are… Thanks for these podcasts dripping with truth, so very rare these days.

  5. Victor Santiago says:

    This is so amazing! I’m from Brasil and my english is not perfect so I am really glad there’s the transcription. This is like use glasses for the first time, and although the market here is kinda diferent (people don’t read much around), it’s nice to have a perspective on that and many others stuff. I’m just so really happy I’ve found it. You’re great. And thank you a lot.

    (((forgive any mistakes)))

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